2003 Gift Guide


Best CD-ROMs click with kids By Jane Huth


A friend says she thinks the computer is the new TV for kids. "No way," I say. "Do your kids tell the TV what to do? Do they create art work, or write stories, or sharpen their minds by watching TV?" Well, the last is debatable, but other than switching channels, you can't make a TV do anything. A computer, by contrast, is a miraculous tool. Load it with programs and it becomes a game, an educator, a palette, a notebook, a means of communicating and a window to the whole wide world of information. Sure, there are downsides to any new technology. But given the choice between TV and computer, I'd toss my TV in the Dumpster. Instead of sitting passively in front of a TV (not allowed in my house), my kids play with great programs that are fun and educational. Here are some of the year's best:

SESAME STREET MONSTER CLUBHOUSE, $19.99, www.encoresoftware.com, (310) 768-1800; ages 2-5. The activities in five areas of this CD-ROM are sophisticated, clever and much more difficult than they appear. In Monster Dance, kids look at four television screens where the monster Narf is dancing, and must select the one in which his dance is different. Kids must look hard to figure out which Narf is nodding his head side to side, rather than straight ahead. There are also music composing, rhyming, matching and shape-finding activities, all of which are best for 3- and 4-year-olds, who will be entertained by the monsters' antics.

FLASH ACTION SOFTWARE: COLORS, SHAPES & MORE, $14.99, www.schoolzone.com, (800) 253-0564; ages 3-6. Preschoolers will enjoy learning numbers, shapes and colors with this cheerful program that also features a play area where kids can create and print out artwork. Kids who can manage a mouse will enjoy clicking on the big, bright buttons and following directions by clicking on the right shape, color or number in response to a question. After each answer, a child's voice offers encouragement, whether the answer is right or wrong. When kids answer a few questions correctly, they are rewarded with applause and an animated animal bouncing across the screen.

THE LITTLE RAVEN & FRIENDS, $19.99, www.viva-media.com, (877) 848-6520; ages 3 and up. Little Raven took his friend Eddie Bear's tricycle without asking and crashed it into a tree. Now he must collect the trike parts from his animal friends. But they don't want to give up the trike parts just because Little Raven asks for them. So he learns to be helpful, make trades and play games to win the parts. I like the way the program shows that helping and sharing are choices kids can make to get things they need. Little Raven is a great character because he's like most kids: impulsive and imperfect, but we love him anyway.

CLIFFORD MUSICAL MEMORY GAMES, $19.99, www.scholastic.com/clifford, (800) 724-6527; ages 4-6. A big storm has knocked out the antenna on Birdwell Island's radio station, so Clifford sets out to bring music back to the island's tuneless inhabitants. Clifford and his doggie friends Cleo and T-Bone wander around the island gathering objects, such as rubber bands and pie pans, to make musical instruments. Their bird friend Jazzer and his bird ensemble sing songs that kids can play along with on a "keybone" (a mini-piano). At the basic level, the games are easy enough for a 3-year-old to manage, but they get harder the more kids play. This is a very gentle, non-competitive way to introduce kids to music and playing an instrument.

BLUE'S CLUES KINDERGARTEN, $19.99, www.atari.com, (978) 921-3700 ; ages 4-6. I wish I'd had this charming program to help prepare my son for kindergarten. It includes a terrific game, Telling Time With Tickety, where kids learn exactly what those long and short hands mean on a clock. For example when it's 12 o'clock, Blue eats lunch, she plays outside at 1 o'clock, and has a snack at 4 o'clock. Kids learn about the solar system from talking planets in the science area, add and subtract using toys in the sandbox, rhyme words with refrigerator magnets and use stickers to create a book. After playing Blue's Clues Kindergarten, a child who's reluctant to go to school might just change her mind.

SCOOBY-DOO CASE FILE #1: THE GLOWING BUG MAN, $24.95, www.learningcompany.com, (800) 223-6925; ages 5-10. Scooby-Doo, Shaggy, Velma, Daphne and Fred try to find out who is dressing up like a giant fluorescent bug to scare patrons away from the Museum of Natural History. Players solve puzzles in six areas of the museum and are rewarded with clues to the identity of the culprit, one of six suspects. The puzzles involve matching patterns and solving maze-type puzzles that are challenging, but not so difficult that kids will be frustrated. The humor is silly and predictable, but this CD-ROM is lots of fun. MIA: CLICK AND CREATE, $24.95, www.kutoka.com, (877) 8KUTOKA; ages 5 and up. Mia the mouse is a favorite in our house because she's smart and funny. Kids enamored of this clever mouse and her quirky friends, including Scary Spider and Freddy Frog, will enjoy playing with the wonderful graphics in this art program. Kids can make crafts, such as a paper airplane or a model of Mia's house, or create greeting cards, stationery and other paper products using the characters from the Mia programs. It also gives kids step-by-step instructions on drawing simple pictures such as robots, animals, buildings and automobiles.

LEARN TO PLAY CHESS WITH FRITZ & CHESSTER, $29.99, Windows, www.viva-media.com, (877) 848-6520; ages 5 and up. Kids of all ages can learn chess from this program, in which Chesster the sewer rat teaches Fritz the prince how to play. To help beginners learn the basics, Fritz and his friend Bianca move around the countryside, where they find games that teach how each chess piece moves. For example, the game of Smash the Toilets teaches that a Bishop moves on the diagonal. Next, they move to the Intelligym where they practice chess moves, such as checkmate and stalemate, with all the chess pieces: king, queen, bishop, rook, knight and pawn. Finally, they play actual games with Chesster coaching. Children already interested in chess will enjoy playing with Fritz and Chesster, and kids new to the game may soon be hooked. DISNEY PIXAR LEARNING: 2ND & 3RD GRADE, $19.99 www.disneyinteractive.com, (888) 724-4180; ages 6-9. Blast off for a fun learning adventure with this CD-ROM, which features "Toy Story" characters Buzz Lightyear and Mira Nova trying to save the galaxy from the evil Emperor Zurg. They rescue objects such as smelly sneakers and very hard eggs floating through space, play action games and avoid crashing into planets, asteroids and other space stuff. To keep the spaceship going, players must "pump gas" on the lower level by solving word, math, logic and reading problems. The games are fun, the graphics terrific and the learning activities challenging.

POWERPUFF GIRLS: MOJO JOJO'S CLONE ZONE, $19.95, www.learningcompany.com, (800) 223-6925, ages 6-10. Bubbles, Blossom and Buttercup must save Townsville from the evil genius Mojo Jojo, who's created evil robot clones to throw trash, disconnect cell phone towers and destroy the sewers. Players spell words, solve simple equations, figure out directions and match shapes in five games that adjust to the child's skill level. The games are fun and become quite difficult at the hardest level. As they play, players also earn printable pages, such as dot-to-dot puzzles, word games and other activities that are enjoyable and educational.

JUMPSTART STUDY HELPERS: SPELLING BEE, $19.99, www.jumpstart.com, (800) 545-7677; grades 1-5. My kids, who can't even read, were fighting me for the mouse so they could play with this program, which hides a mundane spelling drill inside a fast action game. Kids can type in their homework spelling lists or use the program's word lists to improve their spelling. The three games—Crab Attack, Fish Frenzy and Seahorse Speedway—may be played at six levels, at speeds from brisk to frenetic. The trick in each game is to figure out the correct word or letter before it comes speeding past.

BARBIE EXPLORER, $20, www.VUgames.com, (800) 545-7677; ages 6 and up. Barbie wears shorts and sensible shoes with her hair pulled back in a tidy ponytail in this action game where she's an explorer, searching exotic locales like the African rain forest, Egypt and Tibet, for the missing pieces of a mystic mirror. She chases down seemingly endless paths, jumping, climbing or rolling under obstacles, avoiding bad guys and collecting jewels, hearts or other items she'll need later on in the game. It's a sort of "Indiana Jones" type treasure hunt, which should please both boys and girls. And it sends girls the message that there's more to life (and Barbie) than clothes, hair and makeup.

HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS, $29.99, www.eagames.com, (650) 628-1500; ages 8 and up. This is a great game for kids who can handle the movie. (Both were too scary for my 7-year-old, but every child is different.) It's an action game that follows the plot of the movie (and book) fairly closely. Students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are becoming petrified (literally), and Harry has to find the solution that will free them. He wanders the corridors and grounds of Hogwarts fighting all manner of evil creatures, both plant and animal, using his wits and casting spells with his wand. It's exciting and fun, but be warned: The action is fast and habit-forming. Once kids start, it's difficult to stop playing.

ZOOMBINIS ISLAND ODYSSEY, $24.95, www.learningcompany.com, (800) 223-6925; ages 8 and up. Players use math, reasoning, logic and science skills to help the little blue Zoombinis repopulate Zoombini Isle with Zerbles, little orange critters. It seems Zoombini Isle was a paradise before it was overrun by the evil Bloats who broke the chain of life on the pastoral island by ruining the environment. No part of the program, including the help key, is explained up front. The puzzles are challenging and fun to decipher. Give this program to a child who thinks math and science are boring and see if he changes his mind. Kids will learn about genetics, ecology, astronomy and mechanics by tagging along on this very clever odyssey.

CHEMICUS, $19.99, www.viva-media.com, (877) 848-6520; ages 12 and up. Your child may disappear for weeks, if she's a science geek, trying to wend her way through the rusty, dusty, creaky, sometimes creepy world of Chemicus. A scientist named Richard has found an amulet that lets him into a secret world. Mysterious evildoers from the hidden world kidnap Richard, so the player's job is to rescue him before it's too late. Players move from one deserted, dank, dripping lab to another, opening doors and picking up objects. The hard part is figuring out what to do with things like quicklime (put it in the porcelain skillet!) or a red cabbage leaf (boil it in the pan of water on the stove!). If you have a budding chemist in the family, this program is certain to keep her entertained. I loved the great graphics, decaying, high-tech atmosphere and overall cleverness of this very challenging CD-ROM.



Jane Huth lives in the north suburbs with her husband, a first-grader and a preschooler.



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